No Stalin, no USSR, no Cold War. The technology of surveillance, suppression, and control is wholly different from what the book imagines. Even the book’s eponymous year has long since become a matter of literal and figurative nostalgia. Yet the book retains its power, if indeed its power has not grown as its contemporary concerns have faded. The more immediate the state’s threat to readers and their vulnerable technology, perhaps the more compelling Orwell’s message.
In his 2002’s Why Orwell Matters, the late Christopher Hitchens presented a string of examples from leftist British thinkers of “the sheer ill will and bad faith and intellectual confusion that appear to ignite spontaneously when Orwell’s name is mentioned.” But most left-leaning readers have “reclaimed” Orwell—a committed socialist—and long ago learned to love re-imagining Big Brother in terms of Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and similar figures. (Of course, it’s not only left-leaning readers who do so.)
Certainly, the reaction from readers within tyrannies has never changed. In the early 1950s, the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz described how Communist Party members throughout Eastern Europe became fascinated by 1984, which they could only acquire surreptitiously. “Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay,” he wrote in The Captive Mind, “are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.”
It was while in prison, surrounded by several prominent jihadist leaders, that Nawaz realized he wanted to take a different path. He was reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm and came to a new understanding of “what happens when somebody tries to create a utopia.”
“I began to join the dots and think, ‘My god, if these guys that I’m here with ever came to power, they would be the Islamist equivalent of Animal Farm,” Nawaz says. He says he began to see that it’s “impossible to create a utopia.”
“I’m living up close and seeing [the radicals’] everyday habits and lifestyle, I thought, ‘My god, I wouldn’t trust these guys in power,’ because when I called it, back then, and said, ‘If this caliphate, this theocratic caliphate, was ever established, it would be a nightmare on earth,'” Nawaz says.
(Image of Orwell in 1941 via Wikimedia Commons)